The other side of independence: When your boss is a nonprofit board

Last August, as Polina Marinova was preparing to take over as editor-in-chief of the University of Georgia’s independent student newspaper, she me with Harry Montevideo, the paper’s publisher, and Ed Stamper, member of the paper’s corporate board. Earlier that day, she’d been handed a draft memo that outlined changes for The Red & Black.

Entitled “Expectations of the Editorial Director at The Red & Black,” it re-named Ed Morales, the editorial adviser, as editorial director. It outlined his responsibility for filtering all content prior to publishing. It banned obscenity, sarcastic language and any content deemed irrelevant or offensive to students. It criticized design flaws and overly large photos that were “wasting real estate, in print.”

Perhaps the board’s greatest reach, it suggested the journalists have a balance of “good” and “bad” reporting — defining “bad” stories as those that catch people or organizations “doing bad things.”

“I guess this is ‘journalism,’” the memo opined. “If in question, have more GOOD than BAD.”

Marinova hoped Montevideo and Stamper would reassure her that students would still maintain ultimate control over the paper. The reassurance didn’t come. Marinova said she decided her position was “not the job I was hired to do” and left the newsroom with the paper’s production half-finished. She had no idea that other editors and staff would soon follow her lead.

“Obviously it was a spontaneous and snap decision,” she said in a recent interview. “But I don’t think we would’ve achieved the same results had it not been.”

When the dust settled five days after the walkout: Stamper, the architect of the memo, had resigned; Morales’ title had changed back to editorial adviser; the editors had re-applied and been rehired to their same positions; and a joint statement from the publisher, board and editors promised a “new era of open communication.”

The exile, though brief, was watched heavily by those in the student newspaper community, many of whom were surprised to see such a conflict unfold at an independent paper.

Most student newspapers across the country declare themselves to be editorially independent, but only a small number — less than 30 — can boast of being financially independent as well.

At these papers, much of the behind-the-scenes decision making that goes on — from picking and removing student editors to managing the finances — rests largely in the lap of student media governing boards.

As The Red & Black protest illustrated, the relationships between student journalists and the non-profit corporations charged with guiding and advising them isn’t necessarily any easier to navigate than the one many students face with their administrators.

An evolving marketplace

Kevin Schwartz, The Daily Tar Heel’s general manager, said he’d put his paper’s nonprofit board up against anybody’s in terms of governing effectiveness. Since 1989, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina has been governed by a non-profit corporate board.

Without financial help from the university since 1993, the paper remains afloat through advertising sales and guidance from the board.

“We run this like a business: Always an eye on the mission, but we make decisions based on the best business interest of the corporation,” Schwartz says. “A university is a great big spending organization, the goal is to have zero [money] by June. A media organization or business should not be running that way. The goal is to get a surplus.”

The benefits of independence from the university can be great from both an editorial, business and legal aspects, Schwartz said.

“If you’re part of the university, you can’t sue the university — and we’ve done that twice,” Schwartz said.

Ryan Frank, publisher of The Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon, said independence is a great opportunity, but also a great responsibility.

Emerald Media Group, Inc. was formed in the early 1990s. Following the news of Marinova’s walkout from 3,000 miles away, Frank said he saw it as a symbol of how “infinitely more difficult and complicated” it is to be independent today, not only because of declining advertising revenue but also “growing pains” with an evolving definition of journalism.

“There’s growing tension between student journalists’ ideas about what kind of journalism they want to do and the realities of the competitive marketplace we work in,” he said. “We’re all trying to figure out what that model is. How do we learn together?”

The board’s focus on keeping the business afloat can give members incentive to want to be involved in students’ editorial decisions. Three years ago, the Emerald board created an editorial advisory committee to serve as a watchdog for students’ final editorial authority but also ensure the students’ decisions “fit within the business objectives of the newspaper.”

“If you want to be independent you have to operate like a business — that means a newsroom can’t just go off and do things that don’t make business sense,” Frank said.

Frank stressed the advisory committee is primarily a watchdog for students, but he also cited instances in which it could go the other way. Roughly a sixth of advertising revenue comes from sales for highly-read “special sections,” such as a football insert or housing guides. If an editor didn’t feel compelled to include these sections because that “isn’t his idea of journalism … that’s a $40,000 to $50,000 decision” that the board will likely disapprove, Frank said.

An advocate for students

For Bill Casey, The Daily Iowan’s publisher for the last 37 years, stable finances are necessary but not the most important aspect of the nonprofit’s business. He describes the 11-member board of Student Publications Inc., which split from the University of Iowa in 1974, as people who meet once a month to advocate for students.

“I don’t think they ever call the editor ever outside the board meeting,” he said. “Our board is an advocate … that deals with stuff like what kind of equipment should we have to recruit kids, how can we fund the scholarships — that kind of thing.”

Still, Casey says there are times newspaper content should be kept in check — but it’s for the benefit of the students.

“How much stupid shit should we put in the newspaper, and how serious should we be?” he said. “You’d get more readers, maybe, but you’d also be made fun of. It’s stupid. That’s not how legitimate, long-term college media should go. They need to be responsible.”

Stacia Campbell, The Daily Northwestern’s general manager, said she sees far more communication today about struggles between business and editorial aspects.

The biggest aggravation she’s faced from a business perspective is when students review restaurants and other business that could have potentially contributed advertisement revenue.

“So we have those conversations, but we can’t say, ‘Hey, don’t do that,’” Campbell said. “We say, ‘We wish you would think about this.’”

Avoiding a ‘moment of irrationality’

One of the youngest fully independent student media boards around is Fort Collins-based Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation, which publishes The Rocky Mountain Collegian. Until August 2008, the Collegian was under a department at Colorado State University.

“I think we’ve come through it in perfect shape,” Board President Larry Steward said, calling the transition to nonprofit status “seamless” for students. “The benefit is we are somewhat free of the bureaucracy of the university structure.”

He cited internal mechanisms in place to protect against any editorial invasions, such as five voting students on the board — voting power that students still lack at the The Red & Black.

“The process remains, in my opinion, the way it should be,” Steward says. “The majority vote is with students.”

If someone in the public doesn’t like the content, it’s between them and the editors, he adds.

“We do training and engage the students to think about the community they serve, but we don’t pressure the student editors to support certain viewpoints.”

Melita Easters, The Red & Black’s board chairwoman, said the climate at Georgia is much improved from last fall, after efforts on both sides to improve communication.

“Everyone has a clearer understanding of the role of student journalists and the board,” she said. “Board members serve for a number of years, students circulate in and out. So the institutional knowledge amongst students about how things operate is not always there.”

Since August, the board has brought on a total of eight new board members that Easters described as “younger and more engaged in journalism.” It also hired a Columbus-based attorney to review its bylaws.

“We have addressed many of the immediate goals with better communications practices,” she said. “As we look at our own organization, and the current climate for journalism in a shift from print to online media, what is best for our organization moving forward?”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer.

The bylaws for each student media corporation below are available upon request from the corporations. Associated Students UCLA and Rocky Mountain Student Media Corp. also post their bylaws online.

*As of the most recently filed IRS Form 990 (either 2011 or 2012)